Scripture: Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” Matthew 12:38-42 ESV
Observation: Having challenged Jesus about healing on the Sabbath, the Pharisees have already witnessed his miraculous power that attests to his prophetic authority. So the above request is not sincerely proffered to confirm Christ as a legitimate voice for Yahweh but yet another means of seeking to entrap him. And Jesus will have none of it. He cuts through their pretense and exposes their true intent: to secure concrete evidence of blaspheming God that goes beyond his innuendos of being “something greater than the temple” (12:6) and “lord of the Sabbath” (12:8).
Thus, Christ calls out the religious leaders and all of his generation of Israelites who demand a sign over faith. Instead of meeting their demand, he again cryptically responds with two more examples in whom “something greater… is here” (verses 41 and 42 above). Recalling two historical events familiar to his audience, Jesus cites a prophet and a king:
- Jonah: God commanded him to preach repentance to the men of Ninevah (Assyrians) whom Jonah (and all Israel) loathed. Resultantly, Jonah set sail in the opposite direction only to be tossed into the sea and swallowed by a great fish—but survived in the tomb of its belly for three days.
- Solomon: The queen of the South (Sheba) came from the ends of the earth (likely modern-day Ethiopia) to hear his wisdom (Israel’s most wise king).
Jesus adds that the only sign these doubters who seek to entrap him will receive is that of Jonah, for the Son of Man will likewise suffer entombment for three days and nights, but in the heart of the earth—alluding to his forthcoming crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
Takeaway: Both of Jesus’ examples cite Gentiles (pagans) who believed and repented. In contrast, the learned Pharisees standing before the Son of Man refuse to repent. Why? Because they do not walk by faith. Their fear of losing control of an already tenuous world (as they knew it) colored how they interpreted Christ’s miracles: sourced by the devil (12:24). Resultantly, Jesus tells them that the men of Ninevah who repented and the queen of the South who believed “will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (verses 41 and 42 above).
So what is our takeaway? Perhaps three from this passage. First, when we try to take control of what’s beyond our control, we will miss the Holy Spirit working in our lives to lead us to repentance. For our fears and anxieties can stunt our spiritual growth and blur our spiritual vision. But if we draw near the One whose burden is light and yoke is easy, he will graciously expose our blind spots and secreted sins through his Holy Spirit. And sometimes, his Holy Spirit will direct unbelievers and people we loathe across our paths to uncover our sins.
Secondly, like Jonah, our Lord may call us to come alongside others we do not particularly like to expose their sins. But unlike Jonah, we need to humbly and graciously speak gentle words of correction that encourage repentance.
Lastly, like the queen of the South, when we seek “something greater” than us, we will find what we seek. By faith, we will see our Lord and Savior working in our midst, performing miraculous signs of redemption—in our and others’ lives. So whether we are royalty or rogue, those who earnestly seek him by faith will find Someone greater than all.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for the gift of your Son, who, with you, created and is supreme over all things. Still, we struggle to hold fast to this truth and walk by faith, using our spiritual vision to attest to his redemptive work. So would you please help us not to look for signs but for your Son, who is greater than all? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling